The other day I bought my 19-month-old son some new shoes. I bought him some tiny black Converse high tops because they were hilarious and reasonably priced. After I laced him up, I stood back to admire my handiwork. As you might have expected, he looked funny and cool. So I told him so. “You look so cool, bud!” I said.
Then he proceeded to talk about the stupid shoes all day. “My shoes are cool. My shoes are cool,” he chanted. He told his Lego men and my mom on the phone. I didn’t know how to make him stop without telling him he wasn’t cool.
I know he’s little, but how did I screw this up so badly? I mean, I do want him to have a good self-image, but I abhor the idea of him being superficial or overly focused on stuff. Things were so much easier when it was all about trying to decide which infant seat to buy or figuring out the best way to quiet his fussing. I feel completely overwhelmed trying to understand how to plant seeds of quiet, humble confidence in my child. I want him to love himself and be openminded and fair, not turn into the class braggart.
Obi Wan F-ed it Up
Dear Obi Wan,
Have you heard of the Cultural Brain Hypothesis?
The hominin brain is about three times as large as it was a mere 3 or 4 million years ago. The Cultural Brain Hypothesis suggests that our brains have had to supersize themselves to keep hold of all the new social information we needed to parse and store. Though it’s gotten easier for us humans to perform survival tasks like eating (walking up to a window and saying “one cheeseburger, please” takes significantly less mental fortitude than, say, inventing a functional system of agriculture), the opposite is true for our social tasks.
It’s a lot easier to make sense of a situation like this: “He hit my head with a rock, so he probably doesn’t like it when I drop his goat leg in the fire” than it is to keep track of this mess: “Alex was being weird on the bus today. But he was being fine yesterday. Yesterday I sat next to George and today I’m sitting next to Maggie. But Alex says he doesn’t like Maggie. Well, not that he doesn’t like her, but that he doesn’t like-like her. And he broke the eraser off her pencil, so he definitely doesn’t like her. But then there was that time Amy broke Michael’s car and then she said it was because she did like him. So maybe Alex does like Maggie? But he liked Kristen two weeks ago and he didn’t care that I sat next to her at lunch and I’m pretty sure he saw me giving her some of my Cheetos…” Even typing that made my brain hurt.
Anyway, the main reason that humans have gotten so good at everything and totally taken over the planet is because of a thing called Cumulative Cultural Evolution. That is, the ability for ideas and customs to accumulate over generations. That’s why after all these millions of years, monkeys are still trying to figure out the stupid wheel and we’ve got a Starbucks on every corner and carry tiny computers around in our purses.
But in order to become the masters of the universe we’ve become, we’ve really had to get our social lives in order. We can’t be wasting our time having neck-strength battles like a bunch of giraffes, we’ve got to teach each other stuff so we can cure diseases and design new emojis! To make this process more efficient, we’ve become really attuned to societal messages about our behavior.
Enter your son’s new shoes, which, by the way, do sound pretty cool. Here’s what happened: When you laced those bad boys up and smiled that big, proud smile, all those billions of tiny mirror neurons in his little baby brain lit the fuck up like the fourth of July. And that made him smile, too. And you know what? It felt awesome. It felt right. The words “cool shoes” swooshed around in his ears and a flood of happy chemicals soaked his brain, and his whole life, for that one perfect moment, just made sense.
It’s nothing to freak out about, Obi Wan. This is how we train up our young! This is why we smile at them when they sit politely through dinner and eye-murder them when they dump Spaghetti-os down their pants. It’s so, eventually, they do cool things like fly airplanes or teach algebra classes or knit sweaters or sell cheeseburgers. And so they aren’t always walking into parties and saying weird stuff like “My car smelled like cheese this morning.”
And, to more directly address your worry, I think telling him his shoes are cool is fundamentally different than telling him some other kid’s shoes are not cool. Your fear about him becoming close-minded seems predicated on a logistical jump I’m not sure he’s making: that his success always has to be correlated to someone else’s failure.
As long as you’re not making that leap for him, as long as you’re not telling him that his shoes are cooler than his friend Emily’s shoes, I don’t think you have too much to worry about here. What you’re witnessing are your son’s first steps toward finding his place in our rich, complex, multi-faceted social order. That’s a long, arduous process, but his ancestors have been been preparing him for it for 4 million years.
He’s got the perfect brain for the job. And he might as well have some cool shoes, too.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch